BAT’s Lafferty: Coaching is my first love

When James Lafferty, the general manager of British American Tobacco Co. Philippines, talks about running, he really talks about work, desire  and life.

He tells his employees, for instance, to be kind to everybody in the gym the next time they work out not only because he wants to teach them the value of networking but to tell them how he got started as a corporate man.

“Because that was me before and you never know who your boss will be someday,” he says on a balmy Thursday evening in his home in Ayala Alabang where he has gathered a pack of young runners into a club.

Unknown to many, Laffery, began his decades-long corporate career not as a business school graduate but as a fitness consultant for US-based manufacturing giant Procter & Gamble (P&G). He was formally trained as an exercise physiologist, holding a double degree in Psychology and Sports Physiology from the University of Cincinnati in the  US.

Before entering the corporate world, he coached athletes competing in the Olympics. Even last year, after so many years as a corporate man, was in the London Olympics coaching Nigerian runners.

It was 1984, a time when many companies were worried about rising cases of obesity among its executives.

Lafferty’s small fitness company was hired by P&G to keep its executives fit.

A brand manager whom he befriended in one of his sessions was so impressed by his people skills that he convinced him to try out in marketing.

He later sold his company and learned marketing at P&G.

And Lafferty had been running in the business world ever since, working as P&G marketing head in North Africa, and later on holding the same position in P&G’s operations in Poland and Baltic States.

He was also the first ever general manager for P&G’s Near East business which comprises Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and West Bank/Gaza. There, he set up the initial distribution models and made P&G the market leader by a wide margin.

After a 24- year stint in P&G, he accepted the role of CEO of Coca Cola Bottling Nigeria where he also spent several years.

He is now back in the Philippines as an executive of a tobacco company that is racing with top local manufacturers.

Lafferty has been known for quite some time now in small runners’ circles in the Philippines as the business executive who dabbles as a track and field coach.

In the Philippines, he had engaged in training runners from private universities. Now, most of his Thursday nights are spent training assorted young professionals to run.

His Thursday runners’ club started through word of mouth and has been growing ever since. From only a handful of runners, each session how has as many as 40 participants at a time.

“It just spread like wildfire and now I’m running with a bunch of 20-year olds and 30-year olds. It’s fun to watch them improve. Running helps them with their lives. I can point at the many people I’ve worked with who, though running, have become better employees,” he says, stopping from time to time to coach a runner who was sprinting with bad posture or is forgetting to breathe properly.

“It builds self confidence. It does not only improve your body; it builds your mind.”

Lafferty’s nine-month old running club, as he describes it is “serious but not serious.”

“We support each other, we celebrate each other. We’re not about yelling like you’re too slow or something. Coaching is my first love. It’s wonderful to see someone improve and tell you thank you I couldn’t have done it without you,” he says.

Running may be a simple exercise regimen to many and a competitive sport to some. But to Lafferty, it is a way of life.

“It’s the foundation of all sports. There’s no basketball without running, there’s no football without running. It’s a fundamental sport. It’s simple and you can take it anywhere. It keeps you fit. There’s nothing like going around the Philippines and running around the village, it’s fabulous. Taking the jeepney, seeing the country on foot. It’s fabulous,” he says.

For Lafferty, great runners, both in sport and in life, keep going not only because of physical stamina but because of desire.

From time to time, he is still on the lookout for a talented runner whom he can train for a major feat, maybe an Olympic medal.

He believes young Filipino athletes, if given proper support and training have what it takes to win in the Olympics and start a revolution among Filipino runners like what happened in Nigeria.

“Top runners have one thing in common: They are so intense. They have laser focus. And they stay out of trouble. And they want it,” he says.

“You gotta want it. I can coach you how to run faster, run like a pro. In business I can teach you how to look at advertising, how to do financial outlooks. But there’s one thing that I can’t teach anybody: desire.  Desire has got to come from within. And if they don’t have it there’s nothing much I can do.”

It was now 12 midnight and another Thursday session had ended.

“I don’t have a formal plan right now,” he says when asked if he plans to bring the club to other places.

“We’ve talked about grassroots and I still don’t understand how the educational system in the provinces work. But I’m prepared to be of support and to help.”